Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Lunatic Dreams

People don't yearn for the moon like we used to. An entire generation grew up dreaming crewcut dreams of countdowns and dusty craters, but although NASA TV still broadcasts launches, and thousands still line up in person to watch them (wouldn't you?), there is the sense that our reach is farther now, our gaze set on sizeable fellow planets like Mars and Jupiter rather than our own humble follower.

That said, if offered the chance to actually set foot on the moon, who wouldn't be tempted? Who wouldn't follow the example of Futurama's Philip J. Fry and babble a little when asked: "The moon? The moon moon?"

Thrilled, he counts down from ten, but they arrive before he reaches 8; poor hapless Fry counts hurriedly down to "blastoff" in an awed whisper, his eyes saucer-round, unwilling to forgo the ritual.

As this truncated countdown shows, this whole second episode ("The Series Has Landed") is concerned with the gap between our early twentieth-century belief in science/science fiction and our current conception of both as fraught with moral dangers -- a gap I will call either the Oppenheimer fissure ("I am become Death, destroyer of worlds") or, less probably, the Dick abyss (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?). The Oppenheimer fissure is the point where we lose our sense of the endless potential and promise of science and science fiction after an encounter with the consequences. These consequences are important, to be sure -- but there is a balance to be struck between hope and despair, and it seems to me we are falling too far on the side of the latter.

Billy West, who voices Fry, is quoted in a TV Squad interview: "Here they are, they can go anywhere in the universe, and where do they go? The moon. Because in our heart of hearts, deep within our memory banks, the moon was the place to get to." When he arrives, he excitedly takes the predictable "one small step for [a] man," but finds "one giant line for admission." The moon has become a giant, cheesy amusement park for bored Earthlings who aren't even all that excited about visiting it. Attainment of the dream has collapsed the fantasy, even as the futuristic speed of the spaceship collapsed Fry's initial blastoff countdown. This moon is really no different from Earth. In fact, even the name Luna Park is taken from a chain of terrestrial amusement parks (one was famously located on Coney Island).

Something else significant has been lost: the thirtieth century no longer remembers the original history of man's landing on the moon. An educational ride shows robots inaccurately potraying early astronauts as Alice and Ralph from The Honeymooners, causing Fry to grumpily state that Ralph "was just using space travel as a metaphor for beating his wife." Fry is still in the pre-lapsarian state, where the moon is glamorous and alluring; he has not lost the memory of what the moon once meant.

The narrative is certainly satirical, but it does not aim for bitterness. The appearance of Craterface, Luna Park's mascot, indicates that we are operating in the well-worn territory of science fiction's history in visual media. Craterface is directly pulled from George Méliès' "A Trip to the Moon" (1902), a very early fantastical film with a fairly self-explanatory title. In the original source, a bottle-shaped spaceship carrying a load of comical umbrella-wielding astronomers crashes into the eye of the drippy cheese moon; here, a surly drunken robot shoves a mostly empty bottle of booze into the eye of the mascot who tries to confiscate it. If anyone could represent the modern desecration of outmoded ideals, it would be Bender -- and yet moments later, when a magnet temporarily scrambles his inhibition unit and Fry accuses him of acting "like some crazy folk singer," Bender turns a wistful gaze upward and sadly intones: "Yes. I guess a robot would have to be crazy to want to be a folk singer." Bender, a walking, talking, swearing, drinking machine, has dreams of his own. He is a product of science, but he is virtually human.

Spectatorship in this world implies sympathy: later in the episode, the Professor uses a telescope to watch Leela and Fry attempting to outrun the threatening edge of lunar nightfall. "I really ought to do something," he says, and although he then decides not to, seeing as how he's already in his pajamas, this reversal is clearly a failure, albeit a comical one. This scene follows an unsatisfying performance by a busted-down set of animatronic gophers who invite the angry, disappointed audience to "address all complaints to the Monsanto Corporation." The relationship between spectator and performer is meant to be mutually dependent, and neither personal nor corporate indifference rise to the occasion.

Ultimately the episode comes down on the side of wonder. Together, Leela and Fry have stumbled upon the original moon lander, which has been lost for centuries. Fry is ecstatic, but Leela chastises him: "Fry, look around. It's just a crummy plastic flag and a dead man's tracks in the dust." Reduced to its mere physical components, the moon is bleak indeed, and Fry's expression saddens as night falls.

As they take shelter in the lunar lander, Leela grumbles, "I still don't see what the big attraction is." Fry explains:
"The moon was like this awesome, romantic, mysterious thing, hanging up there in the sky where you could never reach it, no matter how much you wanted to. But you're right. Once you're actually here it's just a big dull rock. I guess I just wanted you to see it through my eyes, the way I used to."

Fry is a bubble easily burst, but his simple sincerity -- and I am using both senses of "simple" -- often has an eloquence that touches the listener, as now. As his head droops, Leela sees the Earth reflected in the curve of his helmet. This helmet is a screen that allows Leela a spectator's view of Fry's wistful yearnings: she can almost literally see what the moon looks like to him. She turns, and they both look out over that ubiquitous, endlessly fascinating image: the Earth hanging spherical in space while the moon stretches beneath. Earth has become moonlike now, and this somehow purifies the commercialization of the moon, and undoes the disillusionment that made the moon too like the Earth at the episode's beginning. When Leela softly admits that "It really is beautiful -- I don't know why I never noticed it before," it is not entirely clear whether she is speaking about the moon or the Earth.

I prefer to think it's both. Fry's idealistic enthusiasm has a tendency to lead to trouble (which is how they ended up in the lunar lander with precious little oxygen), but Leela's pragmatism needs a little romance to temper it. The moral quandaries necessarily raised by science and science fiction still should not eclipse all the promise of earlier, more optimistic ages.

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